Skip to main content


Adventures in translation: the attraction of impossibility

Adventures in translation: the attraction of impossibility

Event details

Centre for Translating Cultures, inaugural lecture

The idea of the untranslatable is fashionable in many circles these days, especially in Continental philosophy and law, and held to be complete nonsense by lots of other people.   Many say we can always translate, however badly, and the biographer and translator David Bellos, for example, argues amusingly that the ineffable doesn't exist, in translation or anywhere else: 'everything is effable'.   The philosopher Barbara Cassin would not disagree, but has different ideas about the effing.  The untranslatable, for her, is 'what one never stops (not) translating'; and even Bellos admits that the 'weight or familiarity or perfection or mystery' of some poems cannot appear in translation.

This lecture will explore this set of ideas in two regions: a cluster of legal terms in French, German and Russian, with examples take from Proust, Kafka and Dostoevsky; and the particular case of poetry, and what it is that gets lost or not in translation, especially in translations of Rilke and Mallarmé.  A large part of my argument in both instances is that much of what is interesting and difficult about translation arises not from the choices of individuals, writers or translators, but from broader and more intricate cultural and linguistic determinations.

Michael Wood is Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He studied French and German at Cambridge University, and has taught at Columbia University in the US and at the University of Exeter in the UK. He has written books on Vladimir Nabokov, Luis Buñuel, Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as The Road to Delphi, a study of the ancient and continuing allure of oracles. Among his other books are America in the Movies and Children of Silence. A member of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, and writes frequently for other journals too. At Princeton he teaches mainly contemporary fiction, modern poetry and the theory and history of criticism. His most recent books are Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge University Press), Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) and Yeats and Violence (Oxford University Press). His selection of the letters of Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin, will appear in the spring from Princeton University Press.

Read  more about the inaugural lecture on our news website

An audio recording of this lecture is now available.

3_Translating_Cultures_Inaugural_Poster_May13_Portrait.pdfCentre for Translating Cultures Inaugural Lecture poster (311K)


Queens Building LT1